Using the arts to disseminate research about life in extreme old age

03 July 2023

Dr Francine Toye is an anthropologist and qualitative researcher from the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and University of Oxford (NDORMS). Her aim is to make qualitative research accessible and to find ways that it can contribute to compassionate and empathetic health and social care. Her recent article ‘Will I wear purple?’ – A school arts-based research project in the UK to disseminate findings from a qualitative evidence synthesis about living to an extreme age has been published in Age and Ageing journal.

Building a bridge between young and old - the power of the creative arts

In an age-segregated society, where taboo subjects (such as ageing and death) are not openly explored, art-based-research can create a safe space for people to reflect on challenging social issues. Arts-based-research uses any form of creative art at any stage in research, and it is strongly aligned with qualitative research methods. The strength of arts-based methods is that the ambiguity of art encourages, even forces, the incubation of ideas: we really want art to “say something” to us. Art makes us think and challenge our world views; it can stimulate emotions (and therefore stick in our memory); it can transform us; it transcends language and can therefore make research more accessible. Because of this, these methods have the potential to make a lasting contribution to improvements in health and social care for older people.

The School Art Project

Through a school arts-based-research project, we aimed to encourage young people to think about what it was like to be an older person, and to challenge stereotypes of older age. We called the study, ‘Will I wear purple?’ inspired by Jenny Joseph’s poem, ‘Warning’. In collaboration with their art teacher, we invited GCSE art pupils from a local state school to respond, through their art, to themes from our qualitative evidence synthesis about what it means to grow much older. Dr Francine Toye visited the classroom and talked with the young artists about their art, and about how their ideas about growing older were portrayed in their artwork. When the work was finished, we curated an art exhibition.

What did the young artists say?

The stereotypes of ageing and youth can run deep, and this project challenged both stereotypes.  Some of the artists described the project as an “eye opener”.  The young artists began to see themselves reflected in older people; they explored the dangers of social disconnection and the need to nurture (re)connection with elders; they recognised the need to cherish time and to live their lives meaningfully. We developed the following six themes that are illustrated in the art exhibition:

  • I can see that you are vital, and this gives me comfort

  • I see a person like me beneath their ageing exterior

  • Memory is ambiguous, it can be a blessing and a curse

  • Older people are becoming disconnected

  • We are all connected and should take care of each other

  • We are on a one-way journey and should make the most of it

If you want to read more about this study, you can find it in Age and Ageing




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